October 23, 2012

To the Williams Community,

There has been a lot of national discussion recently about sexual assault, and particularly about the very difficult experiences of students who report assaults. I’m writing today because I think this discussion is incredibly important. Here at Williams we’ve been focusing for several years on strengthening our sexual assault prevention and awareness programs, and on improving our support for survivors. (See last winter’s letter on this work from President Falk here, with a follow up near the end of his spring letter here.) A crucial part of this work is ensuring that our reporting and investigation processes are as good as they can possibly be, so that students who experience assaults are not then faced with additional trauma in reporting.

National data show that over 90% of those who experience sexual assaults on college campuses do not report them—either to the college or to the police.  The same statistic appears to hold at Williams. Why is this the case? One central reason is that reporting is hard. It means telling someone you don’t know about something that’s very personal, and very painful, that you may wish to forget. In addition, survivors often feel that they’ll not be believed or taken seriously, and thus that the pain of engaging in the reporting and investigation process is unlikely to lead to the perpetrator being held accountable. We continue to work on improving our practices in order to address these issues thoroughly and head-on.

There are two aspects to this work. First, we must focus on support for the survivor throughout the process, ensuring that all interactions, beginning with the first person the survivor talks with, are respectful, well informed, supportive, and safe. Second, we must continually seek out the best practices in conducting high-quality investigations that will lead to the most complete understanding of what took place, so that perpetrators can be found and held accountable. We now regularly train (using resources beyond Williams) all those involved in responding to assaults and in supporting survivors. In addition, we now regularly update our approaches to investigation so that the process is both as effective as possible in determining what happened and also fully respectful and supportive for survivors. Input from students as well as from those with professional expertise is crucial in making these improvements.

Here are some important things to know about the current process for reporting sexual assault at Williams.

-If you or someone you know has experienced an assault, it’s important to let someone know so that you can get help. The Sexual Assault Survivor Services (SASS) hotline (413-597-3000) operates 24/7, and connects to specially trained Williams staff who keep information fully confidential. Those staff can help in considering next steps, including getting medical care and reporting to the dean’s office or the police. SASS staff can also accompany a student to medical appointments, to the dean’s office for reporting or investigations, and to any part of the legal process. Additional resources for support, including RASAN, the student-staffed 24-hour hotline (597-4100) are listed here.

-When a student reports an assault to the dean, the dean will immediately offer the option of a change of housing and of a no-contact order, as well as connect the survivor with support if the student does not already have it. The dean will also explain the options for further action, including proceeding to a formal investigation at the college or with the police. Proceeding in these ways is encouraged, but not required. If the survivor does not want to participate in a formal investigation she or he does not have to do so.

-If an investigation does proceed, the student is encouraged to bring someone with her or him to each part of the process. Each party in a sexual assault investigation is assigned a dean to offer information and to act in support. The student could also bring along a member of SASS or a friend.

-The student who experienced the assault is never at any point in the process required to be in the same room with the accused perpetrator.

– As is recommended by national best practices, our investigations almost never rest on the testimony of just two people. We thoroughly interview others who can provide crucial information about the circumstances before, during, and after the time period in which the assault took place.

Much more information about resources, support, and reporting can be found at our new web page on rape and sexual assault, here.  The Health Center and psychological counseling staff as well as the deans, chaplains, and Student Life and Davis Center staff all welcome any students who would like to talk about these concerns.

Clearly, there is much work ahead of us. As promised in President Falk’s letter, we’ll be in touch again later this semester with a fuller update on ongoing work in sexual assault awareness and prevention, and with a summary of assault incidence and reporting over the past year. In the meantime, my deep gratitude goes out to the many students, staff, and faculty working to address rape and sexual assault at Williams.


Sarah Bolton, Dean of the College and Professor of Physics



Sarah Bolton,  Dean of the College and Professor of Physics

Williams College

Williamstown, MA 01267

Phone: (413) 597-4261

Fax: (413) 597-3507